The military is all about risk management, the retiring defence chief tells FRANCESCA MOLD.

Signing off the decision to scrap the fighter wing of his beloved Air Force was the toughest act of defence chief Carey Adamson's military career.

In some countries, defence force bosses would respond to such a decision by rushing to the media howling their opposition and attacking their political leaders for their stupidity.

But Carey Adamson is not that kind of man.


He has dedicated 41 years of his life to the military. He accepts the constitutional limitations of his job and is not about to question the wisdom of his political masters even in the last week of his career.

Air Marshal Adamson's three-year term as head of defence ends tomorrow at midnight.

The 59-year-old is a quietly spoken man, not keen to relate amusing anecdotes from his life or to make a big deal of dramatic experiences as a pilot in Vietnam and during the Cold War.

He is modest and reserved but shows flashes of a generous sense of humour that is no doubt shared with friends and family rather than journalists.

His media shyness is not surprising given the fact that the last few months of his career have been dogged by questions over the $677 million purchase of 105 armoured vehicles for the Army, a flow of leaks designed to embarrass him and other military leaders, allegations of dysfunctional relationships and an internal war within the force.

Air Marshal Adamson would prefer to be remembered for his success in running the East Timor peacekeeping mission and the establishment of a Joint Forces Headquarters set up to help the Army, Navy and Air Force to work together.

But he admits the branding of the Defence Force as being embroiled in internal squabbles has stuck.

Air Marshal Adamson had hoped to resolve the problems laid bare in reports by the Auditor-General and the State Services Commission by the end of his term but other investigations are still pending and will have to be left to his successor, Air Commodore Bruce Ferguson.


But Air Marshal Adamson does not agree with the reports' criticisms.

"I think people were hypercritical when they characterised the relationships between senior officers as dysfunctional. I think that was a gross overstatement. But unfortunately the label seems to have stuck."

There were "difficulties" between factions in the Army and staff in the Ministry of Defence and Defence headquarters, he says.

"But the Auditor-General's report tended to label everybody and now it seems to be accepted generally that the whole outfit was a shambles. I think that was patently wrong."

Air Marshal Adamson is confident rifts can be healed and the Defence Force can move on.

"Everyone is upset about it. The worst thing is that it doesn't look good to the soldiers, sailors and airmen out there doing their jobs."

One of the most difficult moments in his career was the axing of the air combat wing. "There had already been a lot of telegraphing that the decision was likely. But the reality of it was a bit stunning. I think the immediate difficulty was going to be how on earth do you manage the transition but I think the Air Force did a magnificent job of accepting the decision and getting on with it."

Carey Adamson spent his childhood in the South Canterbury town of Fairlie before becoming a boarder at Timaru Boys High School. He always had an interest in aircraft and was quick to take the opportunity to join the Air Training Corps as a teenager.

He won a scholarship to the Air Force and spent his May holidays learning to fly.

"It was a pretty good recruiting thing because I thought it was just the bee's knees. I was at boarding school at the time and I couldn't believe you got so much freedom in the military."

He began his career in the Air Force in 1961 as a pilot flying an Auster, an aircraft which is now mostly seen in museums. He also flew Harvards, used as a training aircraft in those days. In 1964, he was sent to the United States to learn to fly the first Hercules C130s that were being built there.

The next year he picked up New Zealand's new Hercules from Lockheed and flew them home.

There have been a few hairy moments during his life as a pilot, especially during his 2 1/2-year exchange with the US Air Force when he was mostly based in Europe. "That was during the Cold War, so that was good fun," he says.

Air Marshal Adamson was what was called a "Berlin corridor pilot" flying over East Germany.

"That was a bit different. It was the middle of the Cold War and the Russians every now and then would turn up the temperature a bit by buzzing us. They'd fly past and interfere with the navigation systems sometimes."

He also flew C130s in Vietnam, taking soldiers into the south of the country and keeping them supplied with equipment.

"One time we had VIPs on board and the Viet Cong were attacking the airfield we were supposed to be going to. By the time we got there they were all cleared away, but there were a couple of craters in the runway we had to avoid."

He was also involved in the first flights to Antarctica in New Zealand's new C130s.

Air Marshal Adamson is not a man who gets excited about the times in his life when he faced real danger.

He talks about them simply as opportunities to learn.

"As long as you keep learning from them, you'll be all right. Everyone knows self survival is pretty important so the pilot is not going to try and damage himself. Basically if you save your own skin everyone else is okay as well."

His philosophy both as a pilot and a manager is simple.

"Everything in the military is about risk management. Ultimately the worst thing is to get killed and the best thing is to stay alive. In the military, the risks are identified and then you are trained to avoid them. But you also have to be accountable for your mistakes and in the military these can have fatal consequences if you don't learn from them."

Air Marshal Adamson worked as a flying instructor before working his way up the ranks to commanding the No 40 Squadron in 1982, Director of Force Development four years later, head of Defence staff at the New Zealand Embassy in Washington in 1990 and on returning home becoming Chief of Air Staff.

He faced a tough introduction to his new job as Chief of Defence in February 1999 when trouble threatened to boil over in Timor.

He was acutely aware that he was sending troops into a dangerous environment where lives could be lost.

"It's the lives of the men and women you are accountable for. That's the most important thing," he says.

"I think it wasn't just the military people that felt that, I noticed our political masters felt the same when they suddenly realised this is not fun, it's not an exercise, this is for real."

The soldiers went in to Timor with a tough job.

"They had to be ready for combat and there was a bit of that at first. But when things calmed down, we imposed peace on them and it was no nonsense or else. It worked out very well in the end."

Timor has been a burden on the Defence Force in terms of its budget and manpower.

"It's a huge commitment. The arrangement with the Government was that we were only supposed to support them overseas for a year but they've been there since September 1999. To last till November this year we really had to push things to the limit in terms of resources. We keep our fingers crossed and say yes we can do it. It's been a struggle but we'll make it."

Timor gave Air Marshal Adamson the opportunity to work on his aim of ensuring the Navy, Army and Air Force worked together on operations. It worked so well he went ahead and established a permanent Joint Forces Headquarters which draws on the resources of all three services.

Although he is proud of how the force has handled Timor, Air Marshal Adamson also had to deal with the fallout from the death in action of Private Leonard Manning.

"I felt terrible. The whole country felt it as a personal thing. There's been a lot of controversy about it, it still goes on and probably always will. The problem is that regrettably military action is dangerous, no matter what steps we take, every precaution, there's still always that risk there."

Air Marshal Adamson says that the Defence Force needs a breather after its commitment to Timor ends.

"Once it's over we need to get back to some serious training to catch up on everything we've missed, including exercises to get our fighting skills back again.

"When you're peacekeeping you can't go round practising war fighting. We had to cancel a lot of exercises with Australia and other countries but we've got to get back into it."

Air Marshal Adamson is clearly pleased New Zealand is working with the United States and Britain in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan.

He says some in the US military think New Zealand is a "little curious at times". "But the fact we are operating with them at the moment indicates we can deliver when we have to."

Adamson says the September 11 terrorist attacks heralded a seachange similar to events such as the Berlin Wall coming down.

There will be greater cooperation between countries and a rethink of the makeup of our defence forces.

Air Marshal Adamson predicts a much greater role for the special forces in the future and a move away from conventional warfare.

But that won't be his problem any more. His future thoughts will rest on improving his golf handicap and making up for lost time with family and friends.